Dramatica Doesn’t Make Sense To Me, But I Wish It Did

I got pretty frustrated today, almost to the point of crying.

It was over something quite silly, but important to me nonetheless.

The last few days I’ve been trying to understand this Theory of Story called Dramatica. I really started to get into it and see how different characters blend different archetypes and how every story can be understood in terms of its specific thematic components blah blah blah.

Anyway I was really hoping that by understanding Dramatica I would have the tools to assess and restructure any story. However last night I hit a huge wall and so far have not been able to get through it. The theory is just too dense, too undercommunicated, too stricken of helpful examples.

I can’t get my my head around it.

The main problem is the presentation of the “chessboard”, a huge three dimensional grid with interlocking components not unlike a Rubix Cube. There end up being 64 “elements” that intertwine with the 4 different main story threads and it doesn’t make any sense without pre-knowledge of how it all works together.

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In order to get Dramatica, you have to essentially memorize these 64 elements (plus the top level layers) which don’t always mean what you would assume they do.

People claim it takes years to master this theory. Supposedly it is versatile enough to describe every possible story by boiling stories down to their most generic parts. It could be good/useful/significant if it weren’t so ethereal to pin down. Perhaps where it shines the most is its ability to identify weak story structure and make suggestions on how to fix it.

Sadly there’s too much good in the theory to completely write it off, but too much complexity to know whether it’s truly worth “years” of investment. Plus, I’ve read the book so what is there left but for me to keep re-reading it in the hopes of getting it next time?

What I could really need is better examples to explain the confusing terminology, a better understanding of how all the puzzle pieces of theory fit together, and more working films/stories actually explained by the theory without having to scour the humungous Dramatica dictionary.

It’s a beautiful theory overshadowed by needless confusion and complexity. Maybe my breakthrough will come in time or maybe not. Surely Dramatica has a perfect little box to describe my ambivalence.

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7 thoughts on “Dramatica Doesn’t Make Sense To Me, But I Wish It Did

  1. Hi Marc,

    Just found your site while looking around for articles on Dramatica. I’ve been heavily involved with the theory for almost 20 years now and write frequently about it on my site Narrative First (narrativefirst.com). I also recently completely redesigned the entire Dramatica site. Needless to say I believe the process of learning the theory is more than worth the time spent. It is complicated and overwhelming at first, but you’ll go through stages where it all falls together…and then you’ll learn something new and it’ll fall together even more, and repeat. While I consider myself well-versed in the theory I’m STILL learning more about it every day. In fact, there is so much more to the theory than is represented in the current software application that it kind of becomes an unending exploration/discovery. Personally I find it exciting and interesting and don’t really feel like I have to master it 100% in order to use it.

    I also have taught a story class on Dramatica at CalArts for the past 5 years (starting my 6th) and am always looking for new insights or new questions people have about the theory. I see you have only two articles on the theory and really enjoyed your Influence Character one…hope you’ll find some more time to write about it.

    If you have any specific questions feel free to ask me on my site or leave them here, I’ll be checking back to see what, if any, help I can give.

    Thanks!

  2. These are some Dramatica tutorial things I made a few years ago. You may or may not find them helpful, I dunno, but I figured they couldn’t hurt.
    home.comcast.net/~wickeddelite/BigFourLarge.png
    home.comcast.net/~wickeddelite/BigFour2Large.png

  3. Loved the pain your shared in relation to your trying to understand that software. That’s just the type of painful feelings that Dramatica won’t teach a screenwriter how to express. Fortunately for you, if you take those same expressions and infuse them into your characters as they get stuck in Act 2 your writing will exceed anything any writer can create using software. Cheers!

  4. Of course, wouldn’t it be nice to know _why_ your characters need to be “stuck in Act 2”? Or why there is an Act 2 for that matter? Dramatica helps answers both these questions and in doing so proves that asking simplistic questions like “how do your characters get stuck in Act 2” only leads Authors down the wrong path. There are several stories that don’t feature this kind of conflict. Why and convince Authors otherwise?

    Re-reading this I had some more thoughts: a) you don’t need to memorize that “chessboard” or incorporate all those complicated words into your story. That table portrays the human mind at rest — before it has been twisted up with justifications (backstory). Stories describe the process of unwinding a mind back to this position. The reason why there are so many terms to learn and some even needed to be invented was because of the entirety of problems we encounter day-to-day. Dramatica covers everything and thus had to include every single kind of problem.

    Simple question for your own story. Think of some conflict within it. Describe the source of that problem. Now try and determine whether that problem is coming from a fixed external position, a fixed internal position, a dynamic external position, or an internal dynamic position. In order that problem will be found in either a Situation, a Fixed Attitude, an Activity or a Way of Thinking (Manipulation). If you can describe a problem any other way, I’d love to hear about it!

    Secondly that table is balanced so that when you write, you write a balanced argument. You can’t argue for black without also covering white…and for that matter you need to cover gray and color.

    You’re right about there being something there…just takes time.

  5. Gary,
    I feel your pain, dude. But… I discovered Dramatica five years ago, when I was frustrated over some stories I knew didn’t fit into Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” mold or, worse yet, listening to people who, wrongly claim to know, trying to hammer square pegs into round holes (like, try to fit “Good Will Hunting” into Campbell’s paradigm – just won’t work). Then, I discovered Dramatica and “To Kill A Mockingbird” made sense – four decades later. The trick is: start with what you know. Set up your story based on your current understanding, and when you run across a question about a character’s motivation, or why the story feels “off,” go back and read a little more. Jim is a great source of information and a great guy – he’s answered several questions of mine. Whatever the question is, the answer is in Dramatica somewhere (it’s like the iChing for writers). Just remember, it’s a process, not a product, and the fact that you’re looking deeper puts you miles ahead of the writers who aren’t.

  6. It’s hard to escape Dramatica once you’ve internalized a little of it. I watched Godzilla and could not escape the feeling there was an Overall Story of monsters and a personal story beneath. I look at people and wonder if they will be my IC, or if I’m a friend’s IC. At any rate, there’s no shortage of resources. My mindset is to consider Story Mind as a “thirty-year skill,” something you’d do even after you were retired: learning, applying, crafting from a toolbox of ideas.

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